We live in strange and uncertain times. Two years of global pandemic and intermittent lockdowns have been followed by a war on Europe’s doorstep. Who knows where all this will lead.
In such a setting, it feels awkward and uncaring to post about frivolous things such as mountain climbing and global travel – in my case, even slightly surreal: I’ve not left my home country for over two years. But there is a counter argument that says we all need a release: something to give us hope, take our minds off life’s troubles and dream of better things.
I can see both of these arguments, and it was while contemplating the middle ground between them that I realised I didn’t know much about the mountains of Ukraine. What are the main ranges, how high are they, and what’s the name of the highest one? Did I even have anything on my bookshelves about them?
The majority of Ukraine is not mountainous. There are essentially two main ranges. The Crimean Mountains stretch for 180km along the southeast coastline of the Crimean Peninsula (currently occupied by Russia after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014). They form three parallel ridges, 50km at their widest point, gentle and forested on the north side, then falling abruptly in dramatic cliffs up to 500m high along the Black Sea coast. Their highest point is 1,545m on the summit of Roman-Kosh.
A more substantial mountain range passes through Ukraine’s southwestern corner. The Carpathian Mountains arc for 1,500km through eastern Europe in the shape of a leg with a bent knee. Essentially an eastern extension of the Alps, they pass through Slovakia and the southern borders of Poland (where they are known as the Tatras) before swinging south through Ukraine and Romania, where they bend back west then south into the Balkans.
It’s in the Carpathians that you can find Ukraine’s highest mountain, Hoverla (2,061m), an easy walk up with a grassy top rising above spruce and beech forests.
It was while considering the Carpathians that I realised I must have something on my bookshelf. In 1992-3 the writer and map enthusiast Nicholas Crane completed the mother of all hikes across Europe from Cape Finisterre on the coast of Spain to Istanbul, Turkey, following all of the continent’s principal mountain ranges. It took him 17 months.
I fished out my copy of Clear Waters Rising, the book he wrote about his walk (which I’ve mentioned previously in this blog), and re-read the relevant 30 pages of his jaunt through the mountains of Ukraine.
For most of those seventeen months he travelled alone, but Ukraine was a country where he found companionship of an idiosyncratic kind. Crossing the border from Slovakia he is greeted first by refusal, then obstructive bureaucracy, then finally kindness beyond the call of duty.
A kindly border official called Sasha tells him that in order to be granted a visa to walk across Ukraine, he must first be sponsored by a travel agent. When the tour operators aren’t interested in helping a solo hiker, Sasha ropes in the chief of the local mountain rescue service, a sprightly, ageing fitness fanatic called Piotr, to act as his guide.
Piotr only has a week to spare, and tells Nick he will hand him over to a fellow mountaineer halfway to the Romanian border. He sets off on a regimented march that Nick finds hard to keep up with, stopping for a precise 5 minute break on the dot of every hour. When one of these breaks coincides with their crossing of a bog, Piotr is uneasy when Nick suggests they walk for a little longer to reach dry land.
Piotr follows the “straight-line principle” of route finding, aiming for a point on the horizon regardless of whether it takes them across a ravine, through a potato field or along the middle of a road.
They make rapid progress. At midday on the first day, Nick is surprised when they pass through a village and Piotr marches them into a bar to buy them a litre of beer each. Outside again, Piotr tells Nick to empty his water bottle. He disappears into a house, then reappears with the bottle filled with rosé wine.
They walk 40km a day, through woods, vines and villages, then straight up mountainsides through ancient pines and sunlit glades. They climb to 1,600m then pass along a ridge across several high summits in a howling wind. Later they slide down wet grass, dense forest and a mud chute of avalanche debris to reach a mountain campsite.
Piotr deposits Nick with his colleague Uri in the remote village of Ust-Chorna, 45km from the nearest road. Uri is a much younger man, short and “ridiculously muscular”. Thankfully, however, he doesn’t possess Piotr’s military rigour. Their timetable becomes much less precise. Nick no longer trails in his guide’s wake, and Uri proves to have a more easygoing approach to navigation. Where Piotr walked in straight lines to a compass bearing, Uri follows his nose and relies on bumping into shepherds to ask the way.
Several times a day, Uri stops abruptly with the words “problem, Nick.”
“I know,” Nick replies. They’ve gone the wrong way again.
At one point Uri says “problem, Nick” and explains that he’s lost his passport and money. He drops his pack and sets off running back the way they came. He is gone long enough for Nick to start worrying if he’s been abandoned, but Uri eventually returns with a big grin on his face. He found his valuables lying on the track.
Luckily for both of them, there is no shortage of shepherds. Every time they emerge into a clearing, or slide down a hillside to find a campsite, there seems to be a shepherd lying in the grass taking a rest. Nick’s photos from the Ukrainian Carpathian section of his book seem to comprise mainly of portraits of shepherds. They spend a morning with a group of them milking sheep to make sheep’s cheese.
But Nick comes to appreciate Uri’s skill at finding picturesque campsites. One evening they drop off a ridge to find a place with water for the night and find a lake hidden away inside a glacial scoop with a small stream running between grass and boulders.
Uri also ensures that Nick is well fed. Before they leave Ust-Chorna, Uri’s wife treats them to a thick vegetable broth sprinkled with herbs, followed by spare ribs with bulgar wheat, salad dressing and fresh bread. At the campsite that night, Uri produces a glass jar from his pack containing more fresh bread and a delicious pig’s liver paté garnished with garlic and paprika.
“People in the country knew how to find food,” Nick remarks.
Later that evening, as Uri rests in his sleeping bag, Nick prods the embers of a fire, contemplating the peace of his surroundings.
There was a quality of tranquillity in these Carpathian backwaters that I’d not found in western Europe. Here, you could look at the stars, knowing that the winking lights of an airliner would not break the spell… This was peace at its purest, a peace which – in the world where I came from – was no longer regarded as a human essential.
The only time that peace is marred is, unsurprisingly, during his ascent of Hoverla. The mountain’s status as Ukraine’s highest means that it has become a tourist attraction. It lies in a massif known as Chornohara, or the Black Mountains, home to Ukraine’s highest peaks.
The path is well trodden, and although it’s a cold and blustery day, he shares the final pull up to the summit with two school parties. On the summit, teachers struggle to light cigarettes in the tearing wind. Nick and Uri walk on, along the crest of Chornohara. They are now well above the forests, and for the first time in Ukraine Nick finds himself on hard sandstone, looking down into glacial valleys with jagged, glacier-carved ridges.
Further along the ridge on a peak called Shpitzi, there is an unpleasant discovery as they come across remnants of war. The peak is lacerated by trench lines, pocked with gun positions and dugouts. Two forts have been excavated from the mountainside and they are still surrounded by rusting barbed wire.
In January 1915, during the First World War, the Russian Army crossed the Carpathians and tried to invade Hungary. Their advance was held back on Chornohara by the armies of a Hungarian general called Karl von Pflanzer-Baltin.
Clear Waters Rising is a wonderful book, but it documents a different time in a world that is disappearing. Over a hundred years after this First World War battle, history is repeating itself. Russian forces have not yet reached the Carpathians but it seems only a matter of time. And when they do, what then? Who will be next? My wife Edita quite naturally worries about her family in Lithuania.
My heart beats heavily for the people of Ukraine, who seem to be taking it on the chin for the rest of Europe. In my current job, I have been working daily with Ukrainian web developers (by coincidence I did in my last job too). One of them has now made it over the border into Hungary and is dialling into our morning calls again, but the other is still in Kyiv, waiting for the day troops enter. Every day I wonder what my colleagues are going through.
As war edges ever closer to our shores I hope that our politicians will do everything in their power to place sanctions and trading restrictions, and welcome refugees. If we have to suffer higher prices for some of what we consider to be life’s essentials then it’s a cost I’m willing to bear to hold back the tide.
One day this conflict will pass, I hope more quickly than the forgotten conflicts in Yemen and Syria, which are coming up to 8 and 11 years respectively. When it does, perhaps there will be another chance to discover the peace that Nicholas Crane found beside a lake in the Carpathians in 1993. We can remind ourselves that for the most part, the mountains are a sanctuary; a place to retreat from all of the world’s lunacy.